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Research Biologist Meets Tobacco Bloom

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  1. jmatt

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    Here's how all of this started. I hate Balkan Sobranie. I bought some tins of it and opened the first tin on October 27, 2014. Tried it - and just couldn't enjoy it. Left it sealed in a Ball Mason jar and sold my remaining tins. So tonight, while looking for a tobacco to smoke, I pulled out the jar of Balkan Sobranie and thought "what the heck? I'll try this again." So when I opened the jar, this awaited me:

    Yup - the tobacco is covered with what I know to be "tobacco bloom," not mold. Then I lit up a bowl and WOW!!!! This stuff is amazing! Sweet, ripe, fruit, light though - not the deep tangy flavors of my preferred Virginias.

    Here's where the science comes in. My son is home visiting, and he's a research biologist working on his Ph.D. in Human and Molecular Genetics at the top genetics research facility in the country, if not the world. He took one look and said "I can tell you exactly what that is." Not only is he home, his original tabletop microscope is still here. (Apparently even a $500-$1,000 microscope is a joke for someone sequencing and artificially rearranging DNA for his job, so we have a nice microscope sitting here collecting dust). Anyway - he took a piece of the tobacco, prepared a slide, and showed me exactly what was on the tobacco:

    1) Sugar Crystals
    2) Yeast. Specifically S. Cerevisae, also known commonly as Budding Yeast.

    Then he explained the biological processes taking place in the tobacco from the time it was tinned until opened and then ultimately smoked.

    First - Tobacco is sealed in the tin and yeast rapidly consumes all of the oxygen in the tin. He figured that could happen in mere weeks.

    Second - the yeast eats the starches and complex carbohydrates in the tobacco, leaving behind the sugar crystals AND Aromatics. No - not aromatics like the goop added to aromatic tobacco, but "carbon rings" called aromatics because they do in fact have distinctive taste. That process continues until the yeast population is saturated and the reaction mostly stops.

    Third - you open the tin. If you smoke a bowl right then you'll get a mix of the tobacco, with its natural starches and sugars, plus the sugars and aromatics created by the yeast.

    Fourth - the tin, once opened, re-introduces oxygen to the system. The oxygen oxidizes the aromatic rings, modifying their flavor profile. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe for better, maybe for worse. Just depends on what the individual doing the smoking seems to prefer.

    Fifth - the oxidized carbon rings are more stable than the original carbon compounds, so once they've oxidized, they're done and no amount of aging/storing will convert them back. What's happened is the ratio of original starch to aromatic rings to oxidized rings has permanently changed and the ratio from when the tin is first opened will never be back.

    That's why aged is different from fresh, and why once a tin is opened many people notice a substantial change after only a week or two.

    Hopefully I made at least a little sense. I'm sure my son could write a ten page paper to explain in more detail what I just tried to summarize.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  2. tinsel

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    I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this post.

    Thank you, sir. And say "thanks" to your son for his time and expertise

    Posted 3 years ago #
  3. mayfair70

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    AWESOME !!!

    Thank you for sharing that. I love it. If he wants to write a paper, I'd sure as hell love to read it. I love organic chemistry. Should be able to bake bread with that stuff.

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    Posted 3 years ago #
  4. roderick

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    You gotta love science!

    And, nice job summarizing it!

    Posted 3 years ago #
  5. chasingembers

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    Wow, science analyzing our beloved bloom instead of vilifying our noble leaf. Bravo!

    Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you.
    -Edward Teach
    Posted 3 years ago #
  6. anthonyrosenthal74

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    That is indeed interesting! Thanks for sharing.

    Arrrrr, shiver me timbers! International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September the 19th!!!
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    Posted 3 years ago #
  7. echie

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    What a great post! I now feel the urge to experiment with different aging times

    Thank you, and your son!

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    Posted 3 years ago #
  8. jvnshr

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    Amazing post, that's what we need, a research biologist. Thanks a lot for posting.

    Javan
    Posted 3 years ago #
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    lestrout

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    Yo jma - this is most bodacious! Could you ask your family research biologist how these yeasty findings square with the common theory of the bimodal ageing attributed to aerobic and anaerobic bacteria?

    hp
    les

    Posted 3 years ago #
  10. onestrangeone

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    Thank you for posting this! I have a couple of jars that look just like that and I have been a bit concerned about whether it was mold or not! I feel much better now

    Posted 3 years ago #
  11. hakchuma

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    Why dont tobacco manufacturers bloom their own tobacco blends and sell it?

    "From tempers be it known that we are warm in the fields of battle and cool in the hours of debate"

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    Posted 3 years ago #
  12. papipeguy

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    Thanks for this. It's the most lucid explanation I have ever read.

    Blowin' smoke since 1970.
    Posted 3 years ago #
  13. mothernaturewilleatusallforbreakfast

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    Interesting post. Thanks.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  14. foolwiththefez

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    That is really cool. Does make me want to experiment a little by adding brewers yeast to some Virginia flake to see if the process can be sped up a little.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  15. perdurabo

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    Age that shit in a tin.

    Cool post, thanks for sharing.

    It's not my position nor want to help another man. It's his responsibility to help himself, as where he can learn to dig down deep enough to save himself. -I. Kidd
    Posted 3 years ago #
  16. davet

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    Very interesting, thanks for sharing

    Posted 3 years ago #
  17. woodsroad

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    Excellent. I thank you for taking the wives tales and witchcraft out of the discussion of aging tobacco.

    Question #1 for your son: Yeast doesn't digest starch. It needs enzymes to break down the starch chains into sugars. What role do enzymes play in the process of aging tobacco, what enzymes might be at play and what triggers them (temperature, O2?)

    Question #3: A lot of pipe tobacco is treated with Calcium Propanoate to retard mold growth. Does your son know if it also retard yeast growth?

    Posted 3 years ago #
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    jitterbugdude

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    Woods.. I'm no microbiologist but:

    Enzymes typically are killed at temps starting at 120F. This is below the temps Virgina tobacco would see (approx 160F). So you wouldn't expect enzymes to be present on Virgina or Red Virgina ( cooked to about 185F). Burley, on the other hand is air cured so it would be loaded with enzymes.

    Tobacco leaf also contains quite a few species of bacteria such as Bacillus spp.
    It also contains a lot of fungi.

    How all this comes together I have no idea

    Posted 3 years ago #
  19. woodsroad

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    Beta-amylase is active up to 149°f and destroyed at just above that temp and Alpha-amylase is active up to 158°f. Destroyed at 176°f.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  20. pappymac

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    Ask him how to capture the yeast so it can be used in home brewing? Might make an interesting beer.

    I am glad we have a good admin and responsible moderators.

    Heave to you dark colored ship under sail! Prepare to be boarded!
    Posted 3 years ago #
  21. woodsroad

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    Actually, the interesting part is an idea that I've had for quite some time now: If there are microbes at work here, then they can be propagated and used to inoculate other batches of tobacco. Think "Stonehaven culture".

    Posted 3 years ago #
  22. foolwiththefez

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    Ask him how to capture the yeast so it can be used in home brewing? Might make an interesting beer.

    Good lord. Talk about a "monkey touch the monolith moment" If I could have brew a batch from an aged sample of tobacco that would be all I ever brewed.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  23. jmatt

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    Thanks for the reactions everyone. Tons of great questions, many of which I asked last night during the long conversation with my son about these issues. Here's some of the stuff we did talk about, because I had many of the same thoughts you guys have:

    On bacteria: It may or may not also be present throughout the tobacco. The visible stuff was only yeast and sugar. He showed me both under the scope, but unfortunately I don't have a scope-mounted camera to take pictures for you guys.

    Why don't tobacco manufacturers produce yeast/bloom on purpose? Great question. He pointed out that all the big beer brewers have biologists and genetics scientists on staff to ensure the purity and survival of their preferred yeast variants, as the beer industry deeply understands the impact of yeast on the taste of their final product. It seems like pipe tobacco blenders primarily stick to tradition and doing what works.

    On Enzymes: I didn't ask. I can follow up with him on that topic.

    On seeding tobacco with other yeast: Great question Woodsroad. I actually asked that in multiple variations. Including - "what if I took a flake of Stonehaven and put it in jars of other tobacco?" I also wondered if the yeast found in the Jersey Isles (Germain/Esoterica) could be distinct from the yeast found in Carolina (C&D). He conceded that might be possible, but without scientific testing didn't think that was a real strong hypothesis. He also thought the yeast colony would max out reasonably quick, so adding an aged piece of Stonehaven to a freshly opened tin might not do much. Apparently common yeast is exactly that - incredibly common.

    On Oxygen: His warning was once the tin is opened, oxidation is going to start and it is a relatively fast process. Here's an analogy he used: You age a bottle of Bordeaux for 20 years because it improves slowly over a long time. Open it and drink right away and it's probably very good. Put it in a decanter to "breathe" (oxidize) for just an hour and it's sublime. Try to drink it a week later and it's ruined junk. Now apply that to tobacco only much more slowly.

    Some of his advice to me (as a guy with 50+ pounds of tobacco aging) -

    1) Buy smaller tins. Once you open the aged 8 ounce tin the tobacco will change before you can smoke it all.
    2) Once you open any tin, if you intend to age the tobacco then get rid of the oxygen. He suggested either packing the mason jars full, leaving little space for oxygen, OR - leave space in the jar and light a tea candle (unscented of course) and seal the jar. Oxygen is roughly 20% of our air. The tea light goes out at about 5% oxygen concentration, which is after 75% of the oxygen has been removed.

    My own additional thought: Think about how tobacco is packaged. Esoterica eight ounce bags are practically vacuum sealed with little to no air (oxygen) present. Their 2 ounce tins are packed full. Then think about tins with plenty of air space (McClelland, C&D, etc). It seems like that could be making a real difference, although my son thinks the oxygen gets depleted pretty quickly in any sealed tin.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  24. pappymac

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    "foolwiththefez said Good lord. Talk about a "monkey touch the monolith moment" If I could have brew a batch from an aged sample of tobacco that would be all I ever brewed."

    Glad I could be an inspiration. Now get to work and let us know how it turns out.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  25. clickklick

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    Thank you to you and your son for this!

    Hobbyist Pipemaker - Carmette Pipes
    Posted 3 years ago #
  26. jpmcwjr

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    Why don't tobacco manufacturers bloom their own tobacco blends and sell it?

    Because too few folks would know what's going on, hence no marketability except as a very niche product.

    I know that you believe you understood what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
    Posted 3 years ago #
  27. chasingembers

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    If there are microbes at work here, then they can be propagated and used to inoculate other batches of tobacco.

    That's a very good point. I distribute mycorrhizae bacteria from the roots of my older potted trees and bonsai to the roots of newly bought ones to help establish a colony of them more quickly in the new plantings, and my trees couldn't be healthier.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  28. woodsroad

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    "He also thought the yeast colony would max out reasonably quick, so adding an aged piece of Stonehaven to a freshly opened tin might not do much."

    If there isn't any food (sugar) for the yeast, then that's very true. But if you are seeing sugar crystals, then there IS food. Of course, we don't know what kind of sugar it is, nor do we know what kind of sugar the yeast prefer. One could always add sugar...experiments could be conducted, if you have a microbiology lab. You'd need to plate the yeast, for starters.

    If I was retired and few extra bucks, I'd be on this.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  29. yaddy306

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    G.L. Pease has said that bloom is "almost certainly not sugar".

    jmatt, did your son come to the conclusion that this was sugar based solely on seeing it through a microscope? That's not very definitive.

    http://www.tobaccoinfo.com.cn/issue/en_yckj/yqkd/65856.shtml

    This analysis of the components of bloom on cigar leaf concluded that bloom was not sugar, but a kind of mixture composed of KNO3, NH4Cl, as major constituents, and some volatile organic compounds.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  30. swilford

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    Wow! Thanks for this very cogent explanation. It helped me to better understand a process that I had thought I properly understood (I had a bunch of, "oh, that's why that works that way" moments as I read it). Awesome stuff!

    Posted 3 years ago #
  31. woodsroad

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    "That's not very definitive"

    School me on why. Other things can look like sugar crystals?

    Posted 3 years ago #
  32. yaddy306

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    "That's not very definitive"

    School me on why. Other things can look like sugar crystals?

    Sorry...
    See my edited post above.
    That study used atomic absorption spectrometry, ionic chromatography, UV spectrophotometry and gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  33. jmatt

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    Guys - I have to admit that I'm simply trying to repeat most of what he explained, while acknowledging that most of what he said is over my head. He might have said "sugar" as the simple word I could understand without implying it was conclusively the equivalent of simple sugar in the sugar bowl at home. The yeast part seemed pretty conclusive. He directed my attention to a yeast in the process of multiplying via genetic cloning of itself. Hence the "budding" yeast. Anyway - I'll follow-up with more questions as I can get the opportunity. Amazingly, my tobacco hobby doesn't seem to be his top priority today. lol.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  34. yaddy306

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    jmatt,
    Yeah, I doubt it's sugar. Yeast (especially S. cerevisiae) would eat sugar, not leave it behind.
    Also, I've read that a former criterion used in the classification of S. cerevisiae was its inability to degrade starch.

    Maybe he said "sugar alcohol"? The study I quoted detected small amounts of erythritol and xylitol, which are sugar alcohols. NOTE: sugar alcohols, despite their name, are not sugars, although they can be sweet.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  35. woodsroad

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    Jmatt, my hat is off to you and your son. Very good information that may well dispel some unfounded myths on pipe tobacco. Thank you to the both of you.

    Yaddy, no yeast has 100% attenuation rate, and there is always a lot of SOME kind of sugar left behind. I agree, though, that what is seen may not be sugar. What we need is a pipe-smoking biochem major lab assistant!

    Posted 3 years ago #
  36. yaddy306

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    School me on why. Other things can look like sugar crystals?

    KNO3 (Potassium Nitrate)

    and NH4Cl (Ammonium Chloride)

    Posted 3 years ago #
  37. woodsroad

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    Gotcha, Yaddy. Thanks.

    EDIT: DO they look alike at 100x? I kinda doubt it....

    Posted 3 years ago #
  38. beefeater33

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    Whoa, this an amazing thread!! My hat's off to you and your son jmatt............
    Now, get your son signed up as a member here, we could keep him busy................

    "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dream..."
    Willy Wonka
    Posted 3 years ago #
  39. misterlowercase

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    This is too damn cool!

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS!!!!!!!

    Posted 3 years ago #
  40. briarcudgel

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    Fascinating! Many thanks to your son.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  41. mikestanley

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    A very informative post and thread.

    "My own additional thought: Think about how tobacco is packaged. Esoterica eight ounce bags are practically vacuum sealed with little to no air (oxygen) present. Their 2 ounce tins are packed full. Then think about tins with plenty of air space (McClelland, C&D, etc). It seems like that could be making a real difference, although my son thinks the oxygen gets depleted pretty quickly in any sealed tin."

    It is my understanding that McClelland tins it's tobacco in a low oxygen environment. My experience with McClelland is that their tobaccos seem to age at a slower pace than other brands in similar tins do.

    Mike S.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  42. jefff

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    This is a great thread! Thank your son for me.

    Posted 3 years ago #
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    jitterbugdude

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    I'm leaning toward it being sugar. Here's why: I have Virginia Whole Leaf ( about 2 pounds) that I shredded about 4 years ago. It has been in sealed mason jars ever since. I have never seen any bloom in this stuff yet I have seen bloom in commercial pipe tobacco that contains Virginia. I suspect what we are seeing is the sugar that is added by the manufacturers as part of their casing. At some point it precipitates out due to yeast, bacteria or some other unknown entity.

    I also have pounds and pounds of Turkish tobacco and although it is lower in naturals sugars than Virginias I've never seen bloom on it either.

    I tend to count out indigenous enzymes or bacteria too because Virginias are heated to 165F and 185F (for Red). This temp would kill off those little critters. On the other hand, once the tobacco starts getting processed and handled it has plenty of opportunities to pick up microbes from the environment.

    Posted 3 years ago #
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    lestrout

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    Yo jit - you have some very good points there. I dimly recall Greg Pease and his UCal-Berkeley chem/biology friends doing some hi-tech (at the time) chemical analysis and finding some of the crystals weren't sugar but some other organic chemical with names too long for me to remember right now.

    As far as the crystallized sugar being from the casings: wouldn't the taste of the smoke be just as sweet if the sugar were crystals as if it were still distributed throughout the tobacco?

    hp
    les

    Posted 3 years ago #
  45. pappymac

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    Sugar? I'm still more interested in harvesting the yeast from tobacco leaves to brew beer. Think about it!
    Beer brewed with Kentucky Burley. It could be named Tobacco Juice.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  46. foolwiththefez

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    Pappymac, even more than just the yeast there may be some good bacteria for creating a Belgium-style sour beer. I'm seriously going to speak to my home brew guru over the weekend about culturing yeast. If we can figure out a way to get it done, I'll let you know.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  47. hawky454

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    Good post, I really enjoyed it. A note: I never notice a degradation in taste from the moment I open the aged tin (jar) to months down the road. It all tastes the same to me and I'm okay with that. Maybe I don't have the sensitive pallet that everyone else seems to have but I try not to over think this and just enjoy what I have.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  48. sladeburns

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    I love how the homebrewer's minds jump straight to "I could make beer with that!" To a homebrewer, a trip down an aisle in a supermarket is a mental exercise in beer recipe speculation. Hmm...baked bean bbq porter? Nah!

    It would be interesting to find out if you could get some of those fun Belgian esters infused in a tobacco.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  49. jerwynn

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    Awesomely totally utterly fascinating thread!! WOW!! Lovin' it!

    “Deep peace of the running wave to you.
 Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
 Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
 Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
    Deep peace of the infinite peace to you." - Fiona Macleod
    Posted 3 years ago #
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    jitterbugdude

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    as the crystallized sugar being from the casings: wouldn't the taste of the smoke be just as sweet if the sugar were crystals as if it were still distributed throughout the tobacco?

    Les, Possible, but if you've ever mixed a solid (sugar)with a liquid and didn't mix it very well it will taste sweeter because you are tasting more of the solids (sugar).

    It's a shame scientists didn't have the state of the art diagnostic equipment we have today back in the 30's, 40's 50's when some real tobacco research was being conducted. Even today it is still debated as to whether enzymes or bacteria are responsible for the "fermentation" of tobacco leaf.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  51. mayfair70

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    Egyptians brewed beer and made bread with the same yeasts. Most ancient agricultural societies allowed ambient air to dry their crops in store houses. The yeast was the local species native to the land and suited to the climate which floated in and landed on the grain. It was thousands of years before brewers and bakers began to isolate and keep their varieties of yeast to brew and bake with. The yeast is IN THE AIR we breathe. It is all around you even now. You don't HAVE to hunt it down, just open a window.

    Posted 3 years ago #
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    sw0snuff3r

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    An excellent read jmatt, thanks for this! You other guys are making me want to dust off my old home brewing equipment.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  53. samon

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    Really cool, thanks a bunch for the post! great replies too guys.

    I'll forward this to my brother, he has a PHD in genetics, I'm sure he knows a load about bacterial yeast etc and maybe get a few blooms under the scope for a closer look and possibley test for sugars and other possible crystal type residue?

    He is also a hardcore homebrew nerd!

    Best of both, but not a botanist sadly, not that he can't just fill his brain in a few hours as an exercise in showing his little bro the ropes.

    Posted 3 years ago #
  54. jorgesoler

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    This explains why a tin tastes better after a week or so

    Posted 1 year ago #
  55. cigrmaster

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    Great thread guys, really interesting stuff.

    Harris
    Posted 1 year ago #
  56. seacaptain

    seacaptain

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    Great thread, glad you bumped it.

    Posted 1 year ago #
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    derekflint

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    Good read !!

    Posted 1 year ago #
  58. npod

    npod

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    Yes. Very good post.

    Neal
    Posted 1 year ago #
  59. balkisobrains

    balkisobrains

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    Except, no updates!

    Posted 1 year ago #
  60. jamban

    jamban

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    Very nice read. Thoroughly enjoyable indeed. Thank you...

    I love aging things and experiencing them as they age. The journey is awe-inspiring. I was exposed to aging through Chinese tea, and have applied the principles to various other teas and herbs. The fact that pipe tobacco ages well is the reason i was curious enough to try and am here today typing this.

    Posted 1 year ago #
  61. midwestpipesmoker70

    midwestpipesmoker70

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    Thanks for bumping this...I wish I had a microscope so I could start at that wonderful plume on my Stonehaven. I seriously could read a paper on this subject and hopefully some nice microscopic photos would be included.

    Nate
    Posted 1 year ago #
  62. cortezattic

    Cortez

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    I seem to recall Greg Pease saying the silvery sugar-like stuff is crystalized oil from the leaf. I'll search around for the source (probably from the "Ask GL Pease" series here at pm.com)

    Found it in Ask GLP Vol 44

    No, it’s not sugar. There’s not where near the concentration of sugar for it to come out of solution. Even if you dry the stuff right down, the sugar is still bound into the leaf structure. The stuff that we’ve all seen is relatively insoluble in water, so I suspect it’s an organic salt that’s precipitating out as the pH of the tobacco changes due to fermentation. Yes, wild-ass-guess, but it beets sugar. (Beets. Sugar. Get it?)

    I find myself sitting idly on the line dividing past and future,
    as if I could kill time without injuring eternity. -- Thoreau
    Posted 1 year ago #
  63. rx2man

    rx2man

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    I just opened a tin of Benjamin Hartwell signature blend from about '04 and it sure smelled boozey....I was wondering if something was going on like the OP wrote and maybe there was.....

    Posted 1 year ago #

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